In Brief: I’ve made the leap from merely respecting mwY’s curious blend of pastoral folk and post-hardcore to truly loving it. Ten Stories is Top Ten material.
Is mewithoutYou a Christian band? A Muslim band? A Jewish band? Yes. Kinda.
Confused? So is probably everyone – or at least, anyone who hears religious references in a band’s lyrics and immediately feels the need to pigeonhole them as a band that exists to promote a specific religious agenda. mwY’s lead singer Aaron Weiss, whose upbringing was influenced by beliefs and traditions from all three of the “Abrahamic” religions mentioned above, doesn’t feel the need to settle for such easy labeling. Given that his band existed on Tooth & Nail Records (a label commonly associated with the “Christian rock” scene) for several years, and that their preferred style involved enough harsh shouting and other post-hardcore theatrics that only a fraction of a niche of listeners (likely excluding any moral guardians) would bother to make heads or tails of it, I’m guessing that a lot of their interfaith influence flew under the radar for most of their career so far.
But that all changed when their style did. The band’s breakthrough release, 2009’s It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright, completed a metamorphosis of sorts that had started on earlier albums, finding the band opting for folksy instrumentation and Weiss actually singing rather than shouting most of the lyrics. Suddenly their songs based on ancient religious texts and folk tales and philosophical writings were much more accessible to a wider range of listeners. It might still have not been obvious that a Sufi poet provided much of the subject matter for that album until listeners wondering if this was a “Christian” band got to the final track, “Allah, Allah, Allah”, and scratched their heads enough to attain permanent bald spots. It was certainly baffling for me at the time, but I kept an open mind and ultimately embraced that album. The bigger obstacle for me was actually Weiss’s rough vocals – he’s appropriately hoarse for an unglossed hardcore band, but when he swings wildly back and forth between that and his raspy, vulnerable singing voice which doesn’t seem to always be on key despite the melodic nature of the song it’s meant to support, he can be a bit of an acquired taste. Apparently three years were enough for me to acquire it, because when I go back to that record now, it doesn’t really bug me.
The band’s latest release, Ten Stories, which is their first after leaving Tooth & Nail, seems to mark a further turning point for the band. I had developed a healthy critical respect for It’s All Crazy, but the more full-bodied rock sound of this album, combined with the bizarre storytelling that weaves together its individual songs into a satisfying whole, caught me off-guard. It’s a remarkably consistent effort while still being an adventurous one – the music swings back and forth from lush folk/rock to the abrasive, heavy poetry of their earlier work, but the flow of it all feels a lot more logical than it did on their previous album, and there honestly isn’t a dud in the mix. The tall tale contained within this album may as well be a 19th-century version of the movie Super 8 – it’s all about a train wreck somewhere in rural Montana which leads to the escape of several circus animals, whose adventures (and the existential allegories that each one leads to) we follow throughout the song cycle. Understandably this may keep some listeners at a distance who preferred the more openly spiritual tales of the previous album – there are so many geographical and zoological references and pieces of philosophical/theological jargon here that you might need a glossary to keep them all straight (and as it turns out, one ambitious fan went to the trouble of compiling one for the rest of us dummies). But it’s the sort of allegorical approach that I tend to enjoy due to how engrossing it is. That they can tell these stories while still finding room for plenty of tasty instrumental bits on the soft and hard ends of the spectrum, and also throw in plenty of memorable hooks despite the complexity, is quite an achievement. Think of it as a harder-edged version of the Montana album that Sufjan Stevens never actually intended to record. I expected to have positive things to say about the band’s ambition here, but I didn’t expect Ten Stories to emerge at the end of the year as top ten material. So color me pleasantly surprised.
1. February, 1878
Driving guitars, raucous drums, and the harsh, manic shouts of Aaron Weiss will probably be enough to convince you that mwY is returning to the “harder” sound of their old days in the opening minute or so of this track. It’s appropriate, given the train crash he’s describing and the chaos that ensues from it as the animals escape. But listeners who are excited by the hard-edged poetry will probably be dismayed to find that once the song takes a subdued turn midway through, cutting the tempo in half and trading raw energy for vulnerable melody, it never really shifts back. This sort of approach, in which two mini-songs with very different moods and styles, are crammed together into a single track, was used a few times on It’s All Crazy! and seems to be a common tactic for the band. It’s just admittedly weird to have an album’s opening song run out of steam (so to speak) so easily. What should be a frantic scene as various animals ponder their escape routes becomes a bit of a listless anthem – possibly even the album’s weakest track. It’s not a bad place to start, however, as the more subdued vocal delivery makes it easier to understand the lyrics, which are important as they introduce several key animal characters whose physical and philosophical journeys will be followed over the course of the album.
2. Grist For the Malady Mill
A better mix of the harsh and the melodic is up next, demonstrating mwY’s ability to exist in a continuum between jangly folk/rock and more aggressive post-hardcore without feeling like it’s abruptly jumping from one style to the other. It’s all in Weiss’s voice, which in the chorus has a sort of unvarnished and slightly unnerving edge, as if the man’s doing his very best to sing a scream. This skill was well-used on their previous album, too – I’m guessing that it’s just taken an entire record to “break me in” as a new listener, because three years ago I found it off-putting and even a bit off-key, and I mistook for a lack of control. He knows what he’s doing, and it’s fitting for a song that describes the tragic scene left behind as the animals flee (well, the smart ones anyway – you’re busted, Mr. Peacock!) and the humans converge on the wreck to lament the sad loss of life and property. Places names that probably seemed far-flung in the days before automobiles are thrown about as the animals all move toward more favorable climates, and there’s even a clever reference to famed railroad engineer Casey Jones (perhaps a bit of an anachronism since he wouldn’t be involved in his own fatal wreck until 1900, but I can let that slide). The way that Weiss strings words together is really fascinating here: “Shepherd the Southwest wind/Railspikes ripped like the seam of a wineskin/Shepherd the Northwest rain/Brass Hat slept at the helm of that woeful train.” It’s a mouthful, but the razor-sharp vocal delivery makes it memorable nonetheless, and I could have easily been tricked into believing that those words had actually been written in the 19th century.
3. East Enders Wives
Two things become apparent in this song that are true for much of the album. One, mwY has a gift for making their songs flow seamlessly into one another. Most of the tracks on this album are presented in groups of two or three that segue naturally from one to the next, as if turning pages in a book, and that’s quite well demonstrated in the lovely acoustic intro to this song that comes echoing right out of the final notes of the previous song, almost as if this one were a brief coda to it. Two, the band makes good use of female backing vocals on this album. They show up on no less than six tracks, this one being the first, with Aimee Wilson lending a few vocal counterpoints to the second verse. Secretly, I suspect this is Weiss’s way of cramming in more lyrics – even a short song like this doesn’t seem to skimp on them. The song moves swiftly but gently, painting in detailed yet impressionistic strokes as its flowery verses loosely tell the story of a young couple looking back on happier days before the train crash caused all of their hopes and dreams to unravel. This one immediately stood out to my ears, since I knew mwY could be mellow but I wasn’t used to them being this lush. The only reason it doesn’t quite rank as high as my other favorites on this album is because, as a song unto itself, it does feel a bit rushed and incomplete.
4. Cardiff Giant
Continuing to merge their sense of finesse with a palatable, youthful energy, this song gives all four members off the band to show off, with the drums and bass locking together in a loud but light-hearted rhythm, while the guitars ring out above it with a sort of joyous fanfare. It’s triumphantly loud and yet miles away from anything “heavy”, at least until the very end of the song. The lyrics suggest that this one is a conversation between the characters Peacock and Tiger, and from what we learned earlier in the album, both of them were too proud to flee, so they’re now stuck here pondering their captivity and the surreal experience of surviving an event that should have killed them. The rousing chorus, with its emphasis on dragging out the word “I” in the most melodically memorable way possible, poses the central philosophical question: “And I… I often wonder if I’ve already died… Or if the ‘I’ is an unintelligible lie.” (Man, that’s heavy stuff for a cat and a bird!) Weiss delivers the masterstroke at the end of the song when his raspy-throated shouting returned, brilliantly overlaid on top of that catchy chorus, ending the song with the pointed statement: “Megalomania’s only mania if you’re wrong.”
5. Elephant in the Dock
What seems to be a soft, unassuming waltz at the outset actually turns out to be one of the album’s most amusing songs, once you pay close enough attention to realize that the Elephant, possibly the mastermind behind this entire sequence of events, has been put on trial by an unruly kangaroo court. (I don’t know if it’s literally a court run by kangaroos. But on this album, it wouldn’t surprise me.) The Elephant’s defense, if it can even be called that, is more of a soliloquy that sounds like it may have picked up some inspiration from Dr. Seuss, given the alliteration used as she (yeah, it’s a lady elephant) describes her existential quandary: “Children, sometimes I think all our thoughts are just things/And then sometimes think things are just thoughts.” The response that she gets from the riotous crowd turns out to be one of the most dementedly fun choruses ever sung: “Hang, the elephant must hang, the elephant must hang!” (Cue the sound of an electric guitar scraping its way up the fretboard just to unsettle the listener with the musical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I love it.) The elephant, too, is preoccupied with the concept of “I” and the implications of her flawless memory never forgiving her if she were to bear false witness about her supposed crimes: “Brandish your ropes and your boards, and your basket-hilt swords/But what is there can punish like a conscience ignored?” Wow. That’s one profound packyderm.
Making its grand entry with another strong drum cadence, along comes what might just be the album’s most beautiful song, which is an ode to… produce. No, really. So far we’ve been following the animals, but this song seems to be all about the plight of the vegetables left to rot there at ground zero, specifically the eggplants. If I’m reading the song right, a dog must have stayed behind to keep an eye on them. I have no idea what the significance of this could be. All I know is that this is one heck of an enchanting song. The soft vocal harmonies as the word “Aubergine” is repeated during the chorus just makes it seem like it was the word that rolled most naturally off of the tongue when the song was being written. Here Amy Carrigan harmonizes beautifully with Aaron, before taking over the mic for the song’s bridge section. References to things like “your poor mother’s apron strings” and “the passage of the Bible on my wrist” lead me to believe that this song has more to it than meets the eye, but honestly, it could be impenetrable gobbledigook and I’d still love it.
7. Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume
The brief fireworks display of bent guitar harmonics that caps off “Aubergine” will in no way prepare you for the jarring introduction to this song, which comes stomping in on a clattering rhythm as if to say, “After nearly half an album of bouncy rhythms and pastoral lushness, now it’s time to rock the hell out.” Which is what Weiss and co. do for most of this song, trading melody (mostly) for sheer force as Weiss delivers an edgy spoken-word piece about… a young man proposing to his girlfriend at a seaside carnival. Wait, what? His hoarse shouts of frustration seem to indicate that it didn’t go well, and amidst the funky guitar licks, the relentless beat, and the captivatingly aggressive movement of the song, it’s easy to miss the tragic humor: “I asked her, ‘Do you ever have that recurring fantasy where you push little kids from the tops of the rides?’/And she shook her head ‘no’, and I said, ‘Oh…neither do I.’/Then with my Grandma’s ring, I went down on one knee/And the subsequent catastrophe has since haunted me/Like a fiberglass ghost in the attic of my inconveniently selective memory.” Well, at least I found that funny. Maybe I’m just weird. What it has to do with the Fox character, who seems to be narrating the song, is beyond me, but perhaps the book Weiss read that inspired the album will explain it. This is a devilish little song, sneaking in the voice of Paramore‘s frontwoman Hayley Williams in a way that you don’t quite notice at first, since she’s singing more softly underneath Weiss’s shouted lyrics. Then the song makes a hairpin turn right at the end, switching to a slower, but bumpier rhythm as the two gently sing together about such odd things as Shetland wool and the price of German silver. Man, it could take years for me to string together all of these little details into a remotely cohesive narrative that makes sense in my own mind.
8. Nine Stories
Hey, wait… Nine Stories? I thought there were supposed to be Ten. And the album has eleven tracks. (So which one was never a story to begin with, and which one got demoted?) And this is track eight! Despite messing with my sense of numeric completeness, this almost-title track continues the musical flow perfectly, with a relaxed drum groove kicking in exactly where the last track abruptly cut off, as if defying you to remember which segments of music are actually part of which song. Here the guitars are more atmospheric and I really can’t even tell you for sure what genre this is any more… not folk because it’s electric, not quite rock because the rhythm dominates over the electric guitar, definitely syncopated but not fast enough to be rockabilly or jangle pop or anything like that… oh well, I give up. I’m also coming up short in terms of interpretation, since this song is once again all over the map with its geographical and historical references (okay, Appomattox in ’65… at least I know that one’s a reference to the Civil War, but that’s about as far as I get), and it doesn’t seem to reference any of our animal characters directly. Just when you think you’ve got the hang of this bizarre composition, it quite suddenly takes a stylistic turn, bringing in a muddy bass line and changing the rhythm to a slow, simple, charging 4/4, and then bringing in a horn section to heat up the drama as the song ambles towards its conclusion. This segment features one of the album’s most intriguing lyrical refrains: “If the weather ever withers up your vine/Jacob knows a ladder you can climb.” Once again, this could all turn out to be a load of bull and I’d still be really impressed.
9. Fiji Mermaid
I went back and forth several times between a few tracks before finally settling on this one as my favorite… it sort of got crammed in there with a lot of the dense, wordy material that gets strung together near the end of the album the first few times I listen to it, but then one day it just hit me that the exceedingly energetic drum rolls, the feel-good acoustic guitar strumming, and the infectious forward motion of the song made it the best example on the album of mwY doing seemingly everything they were good at, all at once. Take what I said earlier about “Cardiff Giant” being loud and melodically thrilling, but not necessarily “heavy”, amp up the speed and the volume, and you get what seems destined to be a favorite in the band’s live shows. What’s really perverse about this song being so much fun is that it’s titled after something absolutely hideous – basically the mummified body of half of a monkey stitched together with half of a fish, presented to carnival-goers for their awe and/or disgust as if it were an actual evolutionary wonder of the world. Perhaps this is iconic of the treatment that the animals would have received upon arriving at their destination, though I’m merely inferring that, since the lyrics seem to be veering off in about ten directions at once, and getting a straight answer here is about as likely as getting one from an episode of LOST. I stop caring about this when the song has the audacity to drop in a ridiculous pun (“Well, maybe there’ll be a bakery hiring/We’ll knead a little dough to get by.” – even the lyric sheet says [Groan!] at this point), and then, after a reprise of the cascading melody and stabbing guitar licks of the song’s wordless chorus, we get a quiet buildup to an absolutely roaring finish as Weiss unleashes one of his most ferocious rants. The thing is, despite the song using up every trick in the band’s toolbox, it feels like a fully unified song that flows naturally into its aggressive climax – nothing about it is forced or seems to come out of left field. It’s pure rock perfection.
10. Bear’s Vision of St. Agnes
The last two tracks on It’s All Crazy! seem to be echoed in the way that mwY chooses to end this album – first, a drawn out, climactic ballad that moves inexorably toward an epic finish (much like “The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate”), and then an almost stupidly simple, singable anthem to close things out (sort of like “Allah, Allah, Allah”, but with a much bigger “rock factor” – we’ll get there). Here the Bear and the Fox engage in a weary conversation as they realize how much harsh terrain lies ahead of them, seemingly having one of those “Maybe we never shoulda left Egypt” moments as they reminisce about life in the circus, where they had to do ridiculous tricks, but at least they were taken care of. The barren landscape seems to be getting to Bear, who suffers from hallucinations as the harsh wind slowly saps his strength. Curiously, he makes a reference to what I thought was a piece of Fox’s story: “As our hollowed lumber falls like water, ends where I start/In that tattered rag shop back in Asbury Park.” So… are these animals all just manifestations of one man’s fractured mind? Given the very human experiences and philosophical ramblings we’ve heard from so many of them, this seems to be the most logical explanation. As you might expect, this song shifts gears midway through, the electric guitar suddenly groaning with its dense iron strength as our protagonists struggle even to move. The horn section comes back and the entire band builds up to a really strong finish, once again fading seamlessly into the riff that starts the next song.
11. All Circles
The first song on the album that I truly fell in love with was its last song, and also its simplest. As if taking a victory lap, the drums gradually whip up into a spirited rhythm while the guitars ring out with chiming melodies, and Weiss simply repeats one lyric throughout the last few minutes of the album: “All circles presuppose they’ll end where they begin/But only in their leaving can they ever come back ’round.” What makes it ingenious rather than maddeningly repetitive is how that line ends a few syllables early, so when it starts up again, the rest of the band hasn’t gotten back around to the same point musically where that phrase started, so the lyrics and music sort of exist in separate cycles, taking what seems like the entire song to come back around and sync up. There’s a nice little vocal interlude from Hayley Williams in the middle just to spice things up, and then the male vocals seem to get harsher and more numerous, as if singing a round with themselves, as the track wraps up. It’s short but sweet, and as an album closer, it feels absolutely right, providing a sense of musical closure even if an overly active imagination like mine is going to struggle to figure out how exactly this completes the story of our hapless train passengers. Interestingly, the lyrics for this song are not found in the album sleeve, but are written in a spiral fashion on the compact disc itself, which might explain why the album title is Ten Stories instead of Eleven.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
February, 1878 $.75
Grist For the Malady Mill $1.25
East Enders Wives $1.25
Cardiff Giant $1.50
Elephant in the Dock $1.50
Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume $1.25
Nine Stories $1.25
Fiji Mermaid $2
Bear’s Vision of St. Agnes $1.25
All Circles $1.75
Aaron Weiss: Lead vocals, acoustic guitar, accordion, trumpet, keyboards, percussion
Michael Weiss: Guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Rickie Mazzotta: Drums
Greg Jehanian: Bass guitar, backing vocals
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Originally published on Epinions.com.